Friday, 15 April 2022

New Suburbia: 1. What is a suburb?


There are, it seems, two sides to the housing debate – NIMBYs and YIMBYs. Yet these groups agree on one thing – that the answer to the housing crisis is to cram more and more people into our existing urban footprint. NIMBYs do this because otherwise, in the words of Levelling Up Minister and Tory MP, Neil O’Brien " means building right next to people. And specifically, to people who chose to live on the edge to get a nice view." YIMBYs do it because they see dense, busy cities as a wonder, “humankind’s greatest invention” to quote Ben Wilson.

The thing that YIMBYs and NIMBYs agree on is that suburbs are naff. For sure most don’t use that precise word. But between the wealthy inhabitants of places like the Cotswolds and the similarly wealthy inhabitants of posh inner London (often the same people of course) there is an accord that suburbia is boring, filled with dull people doing dull things and raising dull children who will go on to be similarly dull. Suzannah Lezzard, in an essay entitled “Why Do We Hate the Suburbs?” described this outlook:

“Off they went, the two of them, both with their beautiful old houses and even more soulful gardens, on the emptiness of the suburban dream. All about what a crime the destruction of the countryside was, and not one word about what those houses, those small plots of land, might mean to those who owned them, let alone the fairness of distributing a little to many rather than sticking with a lot for a few.”

Meanwhile in the big city people like “celebrated urbanist and Fairfax architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly” have no doubt that suburbia is not only dullsville but a dullsville which is destroying the planet:

“The suburbs are about boredom, and obviously some people like being bored and plain and predictable, I'm happy for them … even if their suburbs are destroying the world.”

The thing is that, despite a hundred years and more of urbanists and cultural critics sneering at suburbia, people still flock to live in those dull and boring suburbs. People still tell pollsters that they prefer a proper family home over a flat. Suburbia is popular. People want to live in suburbs. Or at least it seems that way. To appreciate why this is so, we need to get away from the pleasant city life of the wealthy and look instead at the unpleasant urban life of the poor.

“Suburbia in England is more than just a functional concept: it was about an escape from the squalor of the Victorian city, about well-being, aspiration, decent, plentiful and affordable housing, and the freedom of good transport, initially rail (Metroland etc), then also the car.”

This, from urban policy writer, Tom Bridges takes us away from the usual characterisation of suburbia as a sort of social dead end and towards an appreciation that living in a suburb is aspirational for someone brought up in a cramped, crowded inner city tenement. For all that we are much richer than in the Victorian slums people got on a train to escape, the life of an immigrant family in an East London council flat is still made better when that family might aspire to escape to a three or four bed house in one of those reviled suburbs.

What do we mean by a suburb? My generation in Britain have our suburban image set by popular culture. We watched Reggie Perrin walk to the station reciting the names of the streets. We laughed along with Tom and Barbara Good. We saw in ourselves a little bit of Mrs Bucket’s snobbishness and revelled in the lives of Brookside residents. Of course, most of us were growing up in these places, we were laughing at ourselves just as The Simpsons, Rosanne and The Fresh Prince allowed Americans to laugh at their suburban lives. Suburbia became a mindset, a set of values rather than just a location sort of adjacent to a big city.

Suburbia became something other than its inception as an extension of the city. A commuter village like Cullingworth where I now live is just as much a suburb as Shirley where I grew up, a land of semi-detached houses squeezed between Croydon and Beckenham. Most people’s aspirations are realistic, we’d like a huge house in Oxfordshire or a beachside villa in Southern California, but our real aspirations are for a decent family home in a good neighbourhood where we can live that boring life the urbanists peer at down their noses.

Suburban aspiration is a compromise between the pokey bedsit with a good view of a brick wall and that stately home. Quite how far along that path we travel is down to our own fortune and effort but for most people the place we finish is in a suburb, somewhere that isn’t the city. A compromise between the city’s bright lights and the comforting peace of the countryside. Suburbia, however, is more than this, it isn’t a mere compromise but a physical manifestation of our values and a reflection of what matters most to us.

City boosters always point to amenities as proof of how inner urban density is best: more restaurants, more museums, more fancy shopping, more “culture.” Yet we don’t spend our actual lives flitting from restaurant to museum to art gallery, we spend most of our lives working and at home. There may be a few people for whom that bewildering amenity is a daily blessing, but most people don’t have the time, money, or inclination to live such a life. When people in cities do go out, it is to the same narrow selection of places because these are the places we like, where we meet our friends, and where we are comfortable. Suburbia offers all of this and more – you have those places and amenities plus a healthier space, safer streets, less pollution, and better schools.

Most people’s values are distinctly conservative, and suburbia reflects this because people built such places in the teeth of opposition from radicals, liberals, and reactionaries. The sort of people who think we will live happily in tiny flats if those flats are in stylish mock-Georgian terraces do not share the values that make suburbia work. Worse these slightly fogeyish advocates of the city want to destroy the suburbia of family homes and gardens tand replace it with communal living, manicured boulevards and tightly regulated public gardens. Oh and trees, lots of slowly dying trees.

This is not people’s preference even when such environments are designed by award-winning architects and built from traditional materials. When we ask them (and, history shows, when they have the opportunity) people opt for suburb over city: in repeated surveys for the US Association of Realtors over two-thirds of respondents say their preference is for what us Brits would call a detached house and, in the most recent survey, we can see the basis for a good suburb:

“Ideally, most Americans would like to live in walkable communities where shops, restaurants, and local businesses are within an easy stroll from their homes and their jobs are a short commute away; as long as those communities can also provide privacy from neighbors and detached, single-family homes. If this ideal is not possible, most prioritize shorter commutes and single-family homes above other considerations.”

Things aren’t so very different in Britain. We are less attached to the idea of a detached home, but the main findings of these American surveys apply. It is still true that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” and the balance between community and privacy is a critical function of the suburb. We want good schools, parks, trails and social activities but we don’t want to compromise on the space where will spend most time – our home.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Sam Gamgee and the scouring of The Shire: an evocation of conservatism


It is a truth universally acknowledged that The Lord of the Rings is the finest novel in the English language. It is also the best evocation of conservative ideas in literature. By this I don’t mean the kings and things that dominate a shallow reading of the book but the central theme: that ordinary people can and do perform incredible acts of heroism to achieve noble ends, and in doing these remarkable things, save their world.

The tragedy of Peter Jackson’s wonderful film adaptation is that its climax is the collapse of Barad Dur not the Scouring of the Shire. I understand how, at first, this coda seems incongruous – the war was won, the ring destroyed, and the King returned, why do we finish with a petty little battle in The Shire against a diminished Saruman? We end here because that is the whole point of the book, Frodo didn’t destroy the ring so Aragorn could be King, he destroyed the ring because its presence threatened The Shire – even if most people living in Hobbiton and Bywater were unaware of the danger.

The four hobbits (Merry and Pippin get such a trite treatment in many readings and adaptations including the film) after the killing of Saruman, see The Shire as a restoration project. Sam travels the length and breadth of The Shire making the most of Galadriel’s gift, not to craft anything new but to improve what is there already. The ordinary is good and conserving it for the benefit of everyone is the job of all those with power and will. What the films did was exclude this essential conservative message from the narrative while keeping the central imperative of defeating evil.

But we still need to understand what Tolkien means by evil and the infectiousness of evil. The ring’s evil is infectious but, as we see with Ted Sandyman or with Bill Ferny, evil intent is there without the ring being necessary. Most importantly, the defeat of evil leads to the restoration of previous order. The Shire isn’t turned into a buzzing metropolis but is carefully restored and conserved as a prosperous, contented place based on family, tradition and community. Sam becomes mayor not king and his choices are conservative – preserve what is best, live a good life, help my neighbours. This is the message of the book, that the person who walked into the heart of evil and returned becomes someone respected more for their community activity as for saving the world.

Now you know that The Lord of the Rings is a conservative (and catholic, although that’s another story) novel, we can gently move into a better understanding of conservatism. To do this we need to get away from the assorted caricatures of conservatism that its opponents present. The most common criticism from the left is really a criticism of liberalism – we’re told that conservatives are selfish and individualistic rather than, as socialists see themselves, focused on the common good. Yet when you read that chapter in The Lord of the Rings, you don’t see Sam Gamgee acting selfishly or as an individual focused on his own interest, his desire is to see the place he lived, his community, preserved, protected, and enhanced.

Liberals and socialists will tell you that it is progress to pull down the old mill in Hobbiton and replace it with a new, smoke-belching behemoth. Words like ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ will trip from their liberal or socialist tongues while conservatives say something like ‘I rather liked the old mill and we didn’t lack for flour, why change it all?’ Wiser conservatives will consider how we can gently and carefully make the mill a little better without the drastic, wholesale destruction of the heritage it represents. Progress isn’t wrong but we must shape it to fit place and people rather than, as liberals and socialists demand, people having to change to fit the progress.

We see this concept reflected in, for example, gay marriage (and, yes, I know many conservatives opposed its introduction). We still have marriage, something conservatives consider important, but it has broadened its remit a little. We have lost nothing, but some people have gained – the old mill has a new stone or a more reliable power source, but it is still recognisably the old mill. Applying this approach to marginal and small acts of betterment sees a place improve without the need for the old to be smashed up in the name of progress.

Another conservative feature of Sam Gamgee’s mayoralty is good administration. The libertarian economist and blogger, Tyler Cowan invented a concept he called ‘State Capacity Libertarianism’ which observed that “(m)any of the failures of today’s America are failures of excess regulation, but many others are failures of state capacity.” Cowan notes decaying infrastructure, immigration controls and climate change all require ‘state capacity’ – or good administration as conservatives might phrase it. Although it doesn’t often feel this way in our liberal age, conservatives are, or should be, more interested in improving the managing of what we’ve got than changing things. Too often the excitement of the new sweeps us away, we prefer spending billions on a new railway to stopping our ageing water infrastructure polluting rivers. I’m sure Sam would have pointed, like good councillors everywhere, to an unfilled pothole or a broken fence and said, ‘let’s get this fixed before we talk about a new road or a fancy wall.’

The final feature of Sam Gamgee’s life (apart from the bit where he went to Mount Doom with Frodo) is the centrality of family. Sam married Rosie Cotton and they had thirteen children, perhaps a tad more than par these days but a reminder that Tolkien made family a central feature of hobbit society. Bilbo’s party at the start of The Lord of the Rings features his extended family (a gross of them) and Tolkien stresses how hobbits were keen, to the point of obsession, on the niceties of genealogy. Your average hobbit didn’t get in a jumble over what was meant by first and second cousin and once or twice removed.

Alongside community, heritage and good administration, conservatives value family. Unlike the socialists whose collective focuses on work or liberals who find any collective distasteful, conservatives consider that the basic human unit is the family. Conservatives recognise the damage done by the corrupting liberal idea of the paramount individual; a corruption made worse by the socialist predilection for insisting that mothers do paid work. If the only measure that matters is what comes from work, then family suffers. A utilitarian focus on productivity results in the fragmentation of society, a fragmentation that wealth can smooth over but which collapses the communities of ordinary people. We see women urged, bribed even, to dump their children on low paid nursery workers or childminders to return to work. Worse, liberalism’s individualism results in another collapsing institution, marriage. And just as the obsession with paid work is cruel to families, the belief that marriage is an unnecessary anachronism creates the dysfunction where nearly a quarter of families are headed by a single parent, usually a working-class woman.

We talk a great deal about the consequences of rejecting marriage and family, most notably the problem of child poverty and the impact of single parenthood on child development. But liberals don’t admit error and refuse to promote marriage and family preferring to borrow the socialist idea of taxing people to subsidise children and childcare (meaning that the poor mothers can go back into the workforce, the only place where what they do is valued). We cannot see our way to a different answer because so much that is important – rent, travel, heat, light and home – is now dependent on two incomes. It’s no wonder that the UK and USA with such high rates of single parenthood, have such high rates of child poverty.

There you have it, the essence of conservatism from one chapter in The Lord of the Rings – home, family, community, heritage, care and good administration. It’s true that governments that call themselves conservative haven’t always kept to these ideas and that many who call themselves conservatives prefer power, domination and control, the traits of Tolkien’s evil. But we still hold to these ideas and quiet voices echo them. More importantly, millions of people live a conservative life – valuing their family, cherishing their community, taking responsibility for what they see out their front door. These good people, maligned by liberals and socialists as dullards who lack great qualifications and who prefer to talk about the car parking on main street or the village fete than some high-falutin’ philosophy that promises but never delivers the perfect human society. These good people are Sam Gamgee. And the world needs more of them.



Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Returning to Faerie


Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons; it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” (JRR Tolkien "On Fairy Stories")

Faerie is a place where that direction is North if you want it to be North. Where time is not merely relative but could be random and or even a choice. Faerie is a place where you are what you say you are, where magic is needed to navigate. And where peril lurks in every seemingly innocent corner, where your words hold more than mere communication but shape you and the world around you. This is Xanth. 

In this world, something’s name matters beyond mere identification. And while there is a true name to everything, those mundane names we choose for ourselves, or have thrust on us, still have power. If I call you a pig, and I have power, then you become more hog-like. And if you adopt the name Wolf, you must be ready when the pack leader arrives. Faerie is not a place where magic exists, Faerie is a place that is magic. It is not shaped by physics and geology (or even economics and sociology) but by the intersection of our magics, of the things we call ourselves, the names we give to others, our beliefs, loves and rages. There is truth but it is your truth, my truth, the tree’s truth. And power lies in understanding these truths. 

If you find yourself in Faerie, and we all do in the end, you are in a place where nothing much makes sense, where like the White Queen, you can believe impossible things, where sitting on a rock without its consent offends the rock. In Faerie, streams might run uphill because that is what their spirit desires. Tomorrow that same stream might sit motionless as if in a grand sulk, maybe a creature upset it by saying it should run downhill. In Faerie most of us are lost. 

Not just lost because you don’t know the way – after all if I say that way is North, it is North – but lost because there is no anchor for your being. Everything you say is contrary, everything you do has a consequence, you have no right to truth or science or heavenly guidance. Navigation requires a negotiation with every path (you may say it is headed North but you need also to persuade the Eastward-heading path of this truth), each encounter demands an accommodation with another’s understand of the real. Open that door and walk through without agreeing first that it will take you into the inn? You may end up in a tea shop. Or worse, a prison cell. 

Once upon a time humans understood this magic. We looked at a wood and didn’t see just trees, birds, moss and mushrooms. We saw the whole wood, we saw its spirit and the spirits of the trees, birds and mushrooms. And the wisest among us saw still further, they saw the weave of the world, the way in which all things are interconnected, how the intersection of these things, their actions, their choices, creates events. We better understand love, pain, anger, even death as part of a universe than as specific events that happen to individual things. 

At some point, perhaps that time we foolishly call The Enlightenment, humans walked away from magic and walked towards a world of certainty. A world where truth is given to us in the pages of a science book, a world where directions are definite, and where rocks don’t get upset if you sit on them. Now a glimpse into tomorrow tells us that uncertainty is returned. Not that rocks are upset, but we’ve discovered that what we call things, and what things call themselves, matter more than we thought. Our passage through life is shaped again by the way in which different truths intersect rather than by a proscribed set of precise names. 

The result is that we have taken a step into Faerie. Nothing is certain, nobody can be trusted, things aren’t what they seem. It is again a world of peril where each direction, each event and every encounter must be negotiated. We have, however, forgotten how to navigate in Faerie resulting in lost folk, angry folk and a dangerous spirit. To move on we need to relearn the old ways. Or turn away from magic again.